In danger of destruction
In between a rock and a hard place with my book-in-progress on Israel/Palestine/Lebanon, which is still an orphaned baby manuscript without a publisher, I seek solace in my old alma mater, the University of British Columbia (UBC).
I go to UBC on a sunny spring day for a swim, a walk and the inspiration of fresh air. From my high-rise studio to the east, an excursion to the university where I spent years of carefree undergrad studies some 20 years ago manages to feel like a walk in the country.
I swim in the outdoor pool and then bask in the sun. I call an agent in still-snowy Toronto to discuss possible directions for my baby book that might have a resonance with a North American audience. The story of an Israeli woman in a Sderot kibbutz who fights for a just peace and holds regular phone meetings with neighbours in bombed-out Gaza and a woman in Jabalyia who runs a womens centre/community garden? The story of an Israeli friends house in the Greek Colony in Jerusalem, once owned by a wealthy Palestinian Christian family who may or may not be a distant cousin of mine?
Hmm .all interesting stories, the agent demurs. But wheres the Canadian angle?
A few minutes later, I run into an old friend, a mad Iranian former gallery owner now doing his Masters in art history. I tell him the story of the house and he gets excited. The Turks are opening up the old Ottoman records! he shouts. Now everything will be revealed!
As if on cue, a Musqueam elders voice booms through the spring sunshine via megaphone, just as my friend disappears into the assembled crowd.
It seems I have accidentally wandered into a demonstration against the destruction of the UBC farm. The 24 hectare learning and research farm comprised of blueberry and apple orchards and chicken coops is in danger of being eaten up by more anonymous condo developments, the current blight of the once rather twee Tudor/pastoral campus that has now become a suburb for the displaced upper middle classes seeking real estate refuge and clean air.
We are doing this for the next seven generations, booms the elder. We must preserve our land.
The elder is followed by well-meaning white environmentalists who echo his sentiments. We are all of us standing on unseated Musqueam territory.
In a weird kind of gestalt, I run into a Chilean professor of ethics whom I havent seen for years. A refugee from Pinochets terror, he once organized campesinos in Chile. Now he lectures in the agricultural sciences department at UBC. I end up in a conversation with his wife about the progressive new government in Ecuador and a new eco project shes working on and before I know it, I have become part of the 400 person-strong crowd marching toward the farm. There are men, women, children, students with drums, professors with banners, even people dressed as chickens.
The sun is shining a key factor in creating a sense of social cohesion in rainy Vancouver and the mood is upbeat, as Alejandro introduces me to his colleague Wayne Temple. Wayne tells me about the research hes doing on cereal grains and his battles with US authorities over importing seeds from south of the border. We chat briefly about the evils of Monsanto and soon all is revealed. As it turns out, Waynes grandfather Robert Temple was a pit boss in Nanaimo, when my great grandfather, a coal mining union organizer Methodist preacher from the British Midlands, was part of the miners strike of 1913. Now, a century later, we are marching together to save farmland from developers.
We march past rows of vacant, half finished condos. A giant pit marks the spot where the sheep used to graze, on the bit of farm thats already been confiscated for real estate.
I have a hallucinatory flashback to Bilin in the West Bank, where dogged protesters both Israeli and Palestinian have managed to move the Wall back by some crucial inches, and where shepherds and their flocks are routinely displaced by settlements and cheap mass housing for new Russian immigrants.
But this is not Bilin. There are no Israeli Defense Forces soldiers shooting at us, only polite campus security guards deftly herding us in the right direction, and the occasional police helicopters circling overhead. Land is not confiscated by military decree, but through a rather Byzantine process via a body called the UBC Properties Trust.
At the gates of the farm we are greeted by a bluegrass band fronted by a Chinese Canadian banjo player in a surreal Deliverance meets The Long March moment. The musicians are agricultural students who help run the farm.
It would be such a shame to lose this place, remarks Wayne as we survey the scene, taking in the new blueberry bushes he helped plant the other week and the chickens scratching for grain outside their coops. Its the only place where students can really get a sense of how things grow and where the public can connect to how we get what we eat. Were losing touch with all that, he sighs.
I learn that groups of natives living in the Downtown Eastside regularly make the trek out here for salmon barbeques and to get back in touch with their traditional lands. Occasionally, I am told, students camp out here when their funds run low towards end of term.
A makeshift stage offers music by the community-based Carnival Band, with musicians in cow costumes playing On the Bayou, and later a band that mixes Appalachian melodies with Balkan rhythms. Mixed race toddlers bob and weave to the beat as a gaggle of dewy-skinned students do a funky chicken fandango of mock line-dancing meets pogo. I join them and instigate a circle dance that devolves into a hokey pokey hora. The air smells sweet, the damp earth feels good between our toes. Everyone is smiling.
Provincial NDP candidate Mel Lehan takes a break from glad-handing to sigh and say, this is what life is all about.
Could this multi-culti, back-tothe-land, so-very-Canadian idyll be a microcosmic model for the world?
This place makes me think of the Palestinian national botanical gardens and adjoining organic farm in beleaguered Jericho. Dedicated students and volunteers run things there on zero budget, under occupation, but have still managed to create a sustainable food source for local residents and even helped save the endangered Dead Sea sparrow through their migratory bird monitoring centre (although many native species have had their migratory patterns disturbed by the 8-metre-high concrete wall that entombs so much of the West Bank). Lately though, they havent had enough funds for even basic irrigation, and water resources still controlled by Israel are scarce.
I suggest to Wayne that they could twin with the UBC farm and he seems keen.
Later we feast together on salmon burgers and the farm manager makes a speech. The fact that theyve managed to save most of the farm so far, he says, means that there is hope that we can make a difference.
But danger still lurks on the margins. In a nearby wood, the sister of a prominent civic figure and former mayoral candidate was just murdered in broad daylight. There is still talk about moving the farm to another location as if you could just uproot a farm and all its already cultivated soil. And the sound of ongoing construction machinery echoes in the distance.
For now though its all about celebration of this place, of this land, of each other.
As darkness falls, we make the trek back towards the condo world. A lone car appears from out of nowhere and nearly clips me on the side of the road. Wayne tells me that although many politicians including Premier Gordon Campbell have offered public support for the farm, no one has committed to actually protecting it. He hopes it will be designated as part of the Agricultural Land Reserve.
The moon is almost full and the road we walk along is flanked by huge Douglas fir trees towering above us. Abruptly it all comes to an end, as we turn left into a landscape of concrete condos. A killdeer flies around the giant pit where the sheep used to graze his plaintive song a lament for the loss of land, an expression of the universal ache for some green space to call ones own. In the global battle between grass and highway, between settlements and farmland, the killdeer knows whos winning.